Ivy admission guaranteed—or your money back

College counselor applies stock market tactics to application process

A San Francisco-based college counseling chain approaches the admission process as a hedge-fund analyst does the stock market—and gets 85% of its clients in to top colleges and universities.

ThinkTank Learning uses a formula that weights 12 variables from students' profiles to determine their chances of getting in to an elite college. If the students do not get into their top level school, founder Steven Ma refunds their money.

The most basic package (offering guaranteed entry) starts at about $40,000, but special, customized contracts run from $600,000 to $1 million.

Ma aims for a 75% retention rate on the guaranteed-entry contracts. "More than that means we're not taking enough risk; less means we're not doing our jobs well," he says.

He also offers less expensive packages without a guarantee.

The chain serves 10,000 students ranging from sixth grade to high school seniors and generates $18 million in annual revenue.

Students' experiences

Operating out of strip-malls, ThinkTank college-admission consultants tailor multi-year plans to students, helping them enroll in advanced classes at community colleges, find internships, and choose volunteer activities.

They also edit college applications to "strategically position" students' voices and resumes.  

Much of Ma's work involves "life coaching" shy immigrant students and helping them adjust to American culture, he says.

Future plans

Ma wants to purchase former clients' complete applications and build an online data-analytics tool that will tell high school students what classes and activities to choose.

In the future, he also hopes to become a staple counseling service for public school families by keeping guaranteed contracts under $50,000, "a price point that's accessible to a mass market."

A growing industry

The number of independent college consultants has quadrupled in the past six years to about 8,000—not including thousands more who work part-time, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).

Industry backlash

ThinkTank Learning has elicited extreme reactions from others within the college counseling community.

A counselor who "makes a guarantee is a fraud and a huckster," says IECA CEO Mark Sklarow.

Many Silicon Valley immigrant parents put extreme emphasis on attending a top-ranked university, believing that is the way to success in the U.S., says Richard Shaw, dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford University.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford and head of a high school college program, accuses Ma of "preying" on immigrants (Waldman, Bloomberg Business Week, 9/3; "Here & Now," WBUR, 9/15).

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